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School superintendents across the state are backing an attempt to call out Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and his policies that have drastically reformed the state's public education system.
Dan Lawson, superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, said his letter to the governor and general assembly criticizing Huffman has gained signatures from 63 superintendents -- or about half the state's superintendents. In the letter, he asks state leaders to "consider carefully and prayerfully the future of free public education."
"During the last year, the signees have developed a belief that the office of the Commissioner of Education in this administration has no interest in a dialogue with those of us providing leadership for school systems," the letter states. "We have begun to feel that the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers schoolteachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners."
The letter hasn't yet been handed to Huffman or the governor's office. Lawson said he's giving Tennessee superintendents a week to decide whether they want to sign it. Then he'll send it on to state leaders. But so far, he said he's received signatures from a diverse group of schools chiefs, from big and small districts, poor and wealthy.
"Commissioner Huffman has not received this letter," said Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier.
"His sole focus is on student achievement and improving education in Tennessee, and will continue, as he has in the past, to seek input and feedback from Tennessee educators."
Huffman has come under fire from teachers groups for his aggressive changes to the state's minimum teacher salary schedule, teacher tenure and a recent proposal to make it tougher to receive and maintain teacher licenses. An online petition this summer gained hundreds of signatures from people asking the governor to fire Huffman.
Tennessee superintendents met over the past several days in Gatlinburg for a state-sponsored meeting and the annual meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, or TOSS. Huffman attended sessions with the district leaders and Gov. Bill Haslam -- the commissioner's boss -- was given this year's Friend of Education Award from TOSS.
Lawson said the letter wasn't an official act of the organization. He said he authored it himself and others decided to join with him after he showed it to them at the meeting. And he says the effort isn't to attack Huffman or ask for any specific action, but meant to call attention to the morale issues and other problems the state's rapid pace of educational reforms are leaving in their wake.
"I think it can best be characterized not as an acute situation," Lawson said, "rather a chronic situation that I think has been building up."
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said he saw the letter in Gatlinburg, but did not sign it.
"I am aware of it," he said. "I was not asked, nor did I sign it."
TOSS executive director Wayne Miller said it's understandable that superintendents would be frustrated with so much change occurring in the past few years. Miller said he has worked to build relationships with state leaders like Huffman and believes the commissioner is willing to talk about specific issues superintendents may have.
"I think everybody involved is professional enough to sit down and have a discussion," Miller said. "I think it's just more of a request for dialogue."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.